Posts Tagged ‘Alexandre Dumas’

Ant Cows

Wednesday, May 6th, 2015

todd and pup

Todd and Pup photo by Marcia Sloane

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser May 2015)

“Ants are so much like human beings as to be an embarrassment. They farm fungi, raise aphids as livestock, launch armies into war, use chemical sprays to alarm and confuse enemies, capture slaves, engage in child labor, and exchange information ceaselessly. They do everything but watch television.” Lewis Thomas

You got that right, Lewis. This year, with five yearling apples trees and five apple trees we revived from near death when we bought this place three years ago, the biggest challenge to our trees is ants and the aphids those ants raise on the clover, so to speak, of the tender apple leaves just now emerging along with the onset of blossoms.

Large apple trees can tolerate mild infestations of aphids and the ants that milk them, but small trees, and especially babies with only a few limbs, can be killed by voracious aphid hordes. There are solutions, organic and non-organic, some less temporary than others, but ants are supremely creative about circumventing efforts to stop them from getting the aphid milk they so highly prize. Thus eternal vigilance is necessary in the fight against their insatiable addiction to sustenance.

Yes, I am anthropomorphizing ants, but that’s because I take their assault on my trees personally, which I should not, but I can’t help it.

“Ants have the most complicated social organization on earth next to humans.” E.O. Wilson

Our neighbors just had a baby, a human baby, and for the next several years they will have to guard their child a thousand times more vigilantly against the exigencies of life than I must guard our apple trees against ants and aphids. A few generations ago this young couple would have had a multi-generational network of family members and neighbors and friends to help them raise their child, what used to be known as human society, but today they will be largely on their own. I intend to make myself available for baby care duty, and I will be happily surprised if they take me up on my offer.

“Sacred cows make the tastiest hamburger.” Abbie Hoffman

Speaking of cows and aphids and ants and society, I want to be excited about Bernie Sanders running for President of the United States, but excitement eludes me. Would it make a difference if I thought Bernie had even the slightest chance of winning? Maybe. Or should it be exciting enough that he will possibly force the debate with Madame Hillary a few notches to the left of right of center? Not really. I’m too old. I’ve seen too many smart people expose the sordid underbelly of the ruling elite only to find that almost no one watching the contest knew they were looking at an underbelly and the thing was sordid.

Bernie Sanders calls himself a socialist. That’s kind of exciting, someone running for President of the United States and daring to use the word socialist as a self-descriptor in 2015. On the other hand, by declaring he is a socialist, and given the IQ and emotional development of the average American voter, Bernie might as well have said, “I am a communist and if elected President everyone will live in dire poverty.” Words are tricky, especially in a society of semi-literate people with severely impaired vocabularies.

“Socialism is a philosophy of failure, the creed of ignorance, and the gospel of envy, its inherent virtue is the equal sharing of misery.” Winston Churchill

Ants are socialists. Their incredible success as a species springs from their super socialism. I, too, ideologically speaking, am a socialist, but I am not running for office. However, I have some advice for anyone who is a socialist and thinking about running for elected office: use a different word. Use the word sharer. I am a sharer and believe that sharing our wealth, social responsibilities, and economic opportunities will always provide the most benefits for most of the people all of the time. Or something quotable and broadly unspecific like that.

I was thinking about why socialism, and for that matter sharing and equality, get such a bad rap in America? And while I was pondering this large issue, I read an article about Alexander Guerrero, a young man who defected from Cuba in 2013 and shortly thereafter signed a contract to play baseball for the Los Angeles Dodgers, the enemies of our San Francisco Giants.

The Dodgers signed Guerrero, who arrived from Cuba without a job, to a four-year contract worth twenty-eight million dollars, including a signing bonus of ten million dollars. He has never played Major League Baseball. He is apparently quite the hitter and has already hit two home runs against the Giants, but is seriously iffy in the outfield. And that is when I understood why socialism and sharing and equality get such bad raps in America.

Sharing and equality are not the American Way. All or Nothing is the American way. Rags to riches is the American way. Socialism is complicated and requires work and commitment and diligence and integrity and believing every person in our society is as worthy as anyone else, that we really are equal and should have equal opportunities and be treated equally under the laws of the land.

Most Americans, hearing of a penniless guy showing up from Cuba and being given ten million dollars, do not frown and say, “Wow, that seems crazy. Think how many people could be raised from poverty into a minimally decent life for twenty-eight million dollars.” Most Americans will say, “Damn, why not me?” or “Good for him!”

“One for all, and all for one!” Alexandre Dumas

Back here in the land of non-millionaires, the socialist ants are threatening my apple trees and I am trying not to take it personally. The ants are not doing this out of malice, but from a wise assessment of how to get the most out of a ready source of nourishment. And the better I understand them, the easier it will be to kill them.

Threes

Wednesday, November 6th, 2013

InTheRealmsOfGold-SmuinBallet2

In the Realms of Gold (Smuin Ballet © 2012 David Jouris/Motion Pictures)

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser November 2013)

“If you’re a basketball player, you’ve got to shoot.” Oscar Robertson

I recently took up shooting hoops again at nearby Mendocino K-8 School after nearly two years away from the courts. Sadly, I found four of the six hoops adorned with the tattered remnants of their nets and the other two nets verging on dissolution. Shooting hoops on a rim without a viable net is deeply unsatisfying and actually punishes the shooter for success since a ball tossed through a hoop without a net will frequently bounce faraway rather than drop down conveniently in front of the successful shooter.

And so for selfish reasons, but also for the good of our local youth, I went to the school office the next morning with four new nets and presented them to a friendly volunteer who said she would give them to the principal, which she did. The next day I received a phone call from the school principal and she thanked me profusely for the nets. I told her the nets only cost three dollars each, that I would be happy to buy more as necessary, and that I would have put the nets up myself but had no easy way to get a ladder to the courts. She assured me that she would have her maintenance people take care of the situation, and they did.

“The intrigue grows tangled.” Alexandre Dumas

One hears varying accounts of the financial state of our public school system, state and local, with the latest rumors suggesting that things are somewhat better this year than they were the previous four years following the economic meltdown of 2008 and the subsequent takeover of the federal government by the supranational Ponzi scheme operators who are now permanently in charge. However, there is still apparently nothing in the budget to cover the purchase of new nets for the school’s basketball hoops.

What makes this especially poignant and silly to me is that every time I go to shoot hoops at the pragmatically named Mendocino K-8 School, which I think we should rename Little Lake Lyceum, the playground is heaped (no exaggeration) with expensive clothing discarded daily by students in the heat of play and left for scavengers and pissed off parents to deal with when the pampered children return home sans jackets, sweaters, sweatshirts, hats, and backpacks.

Indeed, on a recent weekend visit to the courts to shoot hoops and admire the new nets adorning the rims, I watched a mother and her two children shopping for clothes by carefully assessing each of the thirty-some items of clothing strewn about the playground. In the end, they chose two sweaters and a brand new rain jacket for the youngest child, a 49ers sweatshirt, a down vest, and a brand new backpack for the oldest child, and those kids were thrilled with their new gear. Are these people thieves? Nay. Many of those items of clothing had been on the playground for several days and were destined for the garbage or the Salvation Army. The least expensive of the many discarded items cost more than six brand new nets for the basketball hoops, hence the poignancy of the situation.

“You look at today, it’s a different situation. You have a game that has been transformed into a game where almost every shot is either a three-point shot or a dunk.” Oscar Robertson

I published my first novel Inside Moves in 1978, the year before the NBA (National Basketball Association) introduced the three-point basket in imitation of the upstart ABA (American Basketball Association). Not much would have changed in my novel had my hero’s long range shots been three-pointers, since basketball is merely background to the drama, but the meteoric rise of an unknown little man might have seemed more plausible in the three-point era than in the previous age of two points per basket.

So last week I was shooting hoops at Little Lake Lyceum shortly after 3:30, before which interlopers are not allowed to use the courts, and I was joined by four Eighth Grade boys who asked if they might shoot around with me since they did not have access to school basketballs after school hours, which at first struck me as more poignant silliness, but then made perfect sense when I considered the aforementioned discarded clothing all over the playground. Having completed my very slow routine of shooting baskets to help me get back in minimal aerobic shape, I told the boys they were welcome to join me, and we proceeded to take turns shooting baskets.

To my bemusement, none of these lads ever took a shot unless he was behind the three-point line painted on the asphalt, twenty-some feet from the hoop. When it was my turn to shoot, I shot from close and not so close and occasionally from afar, but these fourteen-year-olds (they told me their ages) never took a single shot that wasn’t a three-pointer. And they almost never made a basket. We played together for thirty minutes. Each of the four well-coordinated boys, all of them on the Little Lake Lyceum basketball team, took upwards of twenty-five shots, and cumulatively they made a grand total of three baskets.

As an experiment, I asked them to shoot from closer range and they proved to be entirely incapable of making anything other than a layup, and even those very close-in shots were difficult for them. I then asked why they only shot three-pointers and they looked at me as if I had asked why they wore clothing or if they played video games. Why, they suggested (and I paraphrase and delete dozens of likes and y’knows) would a reasonable person bother to shoot and probably miss a two-point shot when he might just as well shoot and probably miss a three-point shot?

“You can’t get spoiled if you do your own ironing.” Meryl Streep

Try as I might, I can’t seem to separate the goofy incompetence of those Little Lake Lyceum hoopsters and the piles of discarded clothing on the playground of that esteemed institute of lower learning. Extrapolating further, I can’t separate those incompetent hoopsters and the discarded clothing from my brother telling me that there are now thousands of job openings in the IT (Internet Technology) field in San Francisco for which there are almost no qualified Americans, making it necessary for American companies to continue flying in thousands of well-qualified people from India, Russia, China, and other places where the children most definitely do not discard their brand new clothes on playgrounds.

“Gather in your resources, rally all your faculties, marshal all your energies, focus all your capacities upon mastery of at least one field of endeavor.” John Hagee

We recently attended a play hereabouts, and because the play was so badly written and I couldn’t convince Marcia to flee with me at intermission, once I got over my dismay at having to sit through yet another award-winning piece of junk, I decided to use the time to study how the various actors dealt with having to recite such garbage. And it was fascinating to see how the one really masterful actor in the show chose to speak her lines sotto voce (because the words themselves were so ill-conceived) and how she almost-but-not-quite transcended the putrid script with her subtle physical movements and telling facial expressions, while the other actors lacked the skill (and direction) to do anything other than stand around in stiff discomfort and raise their voices, as if they thought shitty writing might be improved by shouting.

And I couldn’t help but relate the crappiness of the play and the shortage of masterful acting to those goofy incompetent hoopsters and those piles of perfectly good discarded clothing on the playground at Little Lake Lyceum and the tragic incompetence of the people hired to build the website for the new Big Pharma National Healthcare Debacle and the ongoing and worsening disaster at the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant and our collective inability to do anything about the vast overriding and killing mediocrity that seems more and more a sure bet to render our beautiful planet uninhabitable.

Then yesterday Marcia and I attended a fantastic concert at Preston Hall, a pianist and cellist playing Brahms, Stravinsky, and Prokofiev—brilliant players playing the works of genius composers. And as a result of listening to that magnificent music, I felt a little more hopeful than entirely hopeless, an illusion, perhaps, but also a relief to be reminded that humans are not inherently mediocre and incompetent. For though I don’t know this to be true, I would bet good money that neither of those brilliant musicians we heard, had they chosen to pursue careers in basketball rather than music, would have only shot threes on their long roads to mastery.

Three Musketeers

Friday, August 5th, 2011

Photo by Marcia Sloane

(First published in the Anderson Valley Advertiser August 2011)

“Oh, the women, the women!” cried the old soldier. “I know them by their romantic imagination. Everything that savors of mystery charms them.” Alexandre Dumas

Last Thursday evening, as I was about to go to bed, I had a moment of panic because I had nothing to read. Yes, there are millions of books; and hundreds of new volumes flood the world every day; but I was hungry for a particular literary food I’ve cultivated a taste for over a lifetime, nothing else will do, and I wasn’t sure I had anything of the kind in the house I hadn’t too recently read. Alas, I am allergic to science fiction, murder mysteries (save for Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes), fantasy, horror, mainstream fiction, exposés of the depredations of the oligarchic octopus, and odes to the coming collapse, thus new prose is, for the most part, of no use to me.

Stumbling into my cluttered office, I espied a volume recently procured from Daedalus Books, that goodly purveyor of publishers’ overstocks—a happily inexpensive Dover edition of the 167-year-old The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas. I had attempted to read the book as a teenager and found the language too rich for my fledgling taste buds. I had seen a movie based loosely on the book (there have been more than twenty movies made from the novel) and I have always liked myths in which a group of characters compose a collective being, each character a distinct aspect of the whole—Robin Hood, Little John, Will Scarlet, and Friar Tuck; Groucho, Harpo, and Chico; D’Artagnan, Athos, Porthos, and Aramis. And so with hope in my heart, I lugged the ample paperback to bed, settled in for my customary bout of reading before sleep, and was relieved to find the first two chapters of The Three Musketeers exactly the food I craved.

“The intrigue grows tangled.” Alexandre Dumas

Three months before I began to read The Three Musketeers, I was inspired by various twists of fate to begin a series of large and colorful drawings (large for me, small for Picasso), 20 x 16 inches. I have been making pen and ink sketches since I was a child, but it was only two years ago at the age of fifty-nine that I went public for the first time with my artwork by introducing each chapter of my novel Under the Table Books with a pen and ink drawing. When these illustrations were mentioned favorably in reviews, I was emboldened to create seven zany black and white birthday cards (you can color them or not) that failed to cause a commercial ripple, much less a splash. Thereafter I contented myself with using the myriad scans of my drawings to decorate the instant stationery that computers and laser printers make possible.

What do my drawings have to do with The Three Musketeers?

“My heart is that of a musketeer; I feel it, Monsieur, and that impels me on.” Alexandre Dumas

Nine months ago I was invited to submit a short story to the Consumnes River Journal, a literary magazine of Consumnes Community College near Sacramento. I sent the editors a provocative story I was sure they would publish, but they disappointed my hopes. However, they were enamored of a drawing I included with the story, and to this drawing they dedicated an entire glossy page of their journal. Then about two months ago, shortly after the publication of the journal, I was contacted by a curator of an annual art show in Sacramento, a show of visual art created by writers, and this curator asked if I would like to present a few of my drawings in the next such show.

As it happened, the day I received the curator’s communiqué, I had just completed a series of three (large for me, small for Picasso) pieces I hoped to enter in a juried show at the Mendocino Art Center. However, I failed to have these beauties framed in time (they are still not framed) for the day of judgment, and so I will never know if I would have won a place in that show or not. Nevertheless, my sketching juices were flowing nicely when I received this invitation from Sacramento, and so there ensued a flurry of pen and ink inventions resulting in the birth of a family of colorful characters named Mr. and Mrs. Magician and their children Mystery, Mischief, and Merlin.

“D’Artagnan was amazed to note by what fragile and unknown threads the destinies of nations and the lives of men are suspended.” Alexandre Dumas

The central hero (sometimes anti-hero) of The Three Musketeers is a daring young man named D’Artagnan. Whenever Dumas found himself at a cul-de-sac in the plot, he arranged for D’Artagnan to accidentally stumble upon an important someone or something to get the action moving again. These recurring “accidentals” are among my least favorite things about the novel, along with much of the final third of the mighty tome, though when I learned Dumas wrote the novel in serial form (The Three Musketeers was first published in a French magazine over the course of several months in 1844) I was more forgiving of these implausible plot twists, having myself authored a serial work of fiction for a Sacramento weekly in the 1980’s.

And, in fact, we do frequently stumble upon and over things that propel the plots of our lives, so in that sense D’Artagnan embodies the Sufi mystic who goes forth with an open heart and open mind to discover what the universe has to offer. As Paladin’s business card said Have Gun, Will Travel, so D’Artagnan’s card might have read Have Sword, Will Duel, and my card might say Have Pen, Will Make Large (for me, not for Picasso) Drawings.

Speaking of propelling the plot…lacking a studio I have commandeered the dining table for purposes of making my larger-than-usual drawings, and Marcia, my wife and boon companion these last five years, is now privy to my works-in-progress. To my great relief, she likes my drawings and even makes cogent suggestions about color choices and composition, all of which I strictly obey. (Not)

One recent evening Sandy Cosca came over and Marcia said to me, “Show Sandy your drawings,” which I did.

Sandy chuckled at the drawings (because they are funny) and asked, “Are these illustrations for a story?”

And though I heard myself say, “No,” I wondered if they were illustrations for a story. How long a story? A novella? A novel? A serial?

Two days later, Marion Crombie, freshly returned from England, viewed the drawings, smiled brightly, and asked, “Do these go with a story?”

So at last we come back to that fateful evening I alluded to in the first sentence of this article, when I, in a D’Artagnan-like moment of desperation, stumbled into my office, found The Three Musketeers, and began to feed upon that tale. Having gobbled the first two chapters, I fell asleep and had a vivid dream in which the Magician family came to life and revealed themselves to be a complicated and compelling collective being, each character a distinct aspect of a fantabulous whole. The dream, clearly, was the beginning of a story: Mr. and Mrs. Magician and their children Merlin, Mystery, and Mischief, though what the story is about and how long it turns out to be remain to be seen.

I have only written the first two chapters, and so far the tale seems less about dueling with the forces of evil ala D’Artagnan, and more about parents and children and their struggles to separate and individuate and ultimately come together again to take meaningful action against the larger forces of greed and avarice. The Magicians, though not great swordsmen or the darlings of wealthy queens and kings and cardinals, seem to be social activists of a most unusual kind, and they seem to pose the question: how will we, you and I, give aid to our friends and our communities in the face of the terrible and growing inequities engendered by a ruling class of narcissistic psychopaths hell bent on turning back the clock to feudal times when the likes of D’Artagnan and his fellow musketeers served a tiny minority of wealthy people whose pathological selfishness kept all but the luckiest few enslaved by poverty and fear?

You can view Todd’s zany birthday cards (and soon his Magician family drawings) at UnderTheTableBooks.com